Top 10* Films of the Decade — About Homelessness

By Catherine Hinrichsen, Project Director, Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness

A film about homelessness was named among the top 10 best films of the entire decade. That’s something we couldn’t have foreseen when we first hosted a film screening in 2011, in the anxious moments when we wondered whether anyone would want to come and watch a movie about homelessness.

Then came a stream of memorable characters, stories and performances, as well as creative ways to frame a story about homelessness and ground-breaking access to the people experiencing it.

As the decade’s Top 10 lists began popping up everywhere, and as our project celebrates our 10th anniversary, it’s a good time to reflect on some of the many excellent films made in the 2010s that deal profoundly and sensitively with homelessness.

We won’t cover every film about homelessness here – just the ones we screened (although we were choosy about what we screened). And instead of ranking them, we’ll go chronologically, as we presented them. 

*This is actually a Top 11 list, if you count the “American Refugees” short films separately.


1. Homeless: The Motel Kids of Orange County (2010; directed by Alexandra Pelosi)

Cover art from “Motel Kids,” 2010.

Our very first film screening proved to us the power of film to engage audiences on family homelessness.  In January 2011, we partnered with SIFF on a screening of this HBO documentary by the Emmy-nominated director Alexandra Pelosi. She captured the stories of the families living in run-down budget motels near Disneyland, and her ground-breaking access to the children of those families yielded portraits that are heartbreaking and illuminating.

Alexandra on New Day snip

Ms. Pelosi came to Seattle for the screening and a Q&A, preceded by local media appearances and a trip to Tacoma earlier that day for a screening at the Grand Theatre for Pierce County providers. Journalist Rosette Royale of Real Change, one of our original Journalism Fellows, accompanied us for the drive to Tacoma for a behind-the-scenes story.

How to Watch: On HBO or Prime Video

2. Kicking It (2008; Susan Koch, Jeff Werner, co-directors)

As part of our new strategy of trying to meet the community where they are — in this case, soccer fans — we hosted a screening of this documentary about the Homeless World Cup in March 2012 at the Egyptian. The film, narrated by Colin Farrell, follows six players vying to take the world title in a competition that enables people to prove they are more than their experience of homelessness. We partnered with Street Soccer Seattle, whose theme is “soccer for social justice,” and hosted a pre-film party at what was then the headquarters of sports energy drink Golazo; a couple Sounders even dropped by to kick it around on the indoor pitch. The founder of Street Soccer USA, Lawrence Cann, was our special guest for the screening and also visited with local nonprofits who serve youth. Read more about the event.

How to Watch: DVD on Amazon


3. Inocente (2012; Sean Fine, co-director and Andrea Nix, co-director)

Inocente herself takes the stage at the SAM screening. Photo by Steve Schimmelman.

The only Oscar winner on this list, “Inocente” introduced the world to a 15-year-old who had been homeless with her family and followed her journey as an artist. In the years since, Inocente‘s story has become even more intriguing because of how she entered the country as a child. The teen artist enchanted us when she came to Seattle as a guest at our screening at Seattle Art Museum in September 2012, and an after-party at cmd+p in Pioneer Square, the art gallery and retail space run by our partner for this event, Sanctuary Art Center. Earlier that day, she had appeared at the annual breakfast for Metropolitan Development Council in Tacoma, and ran an art workshop for teens experiencing homelessness at SAC’s drop-in center.

How to Watch: iTunes

Read more in this appropriately artfully written review by our own Perry Firth for Firesteel.


4. American Winter (2013; Harry Gantz and Joe Gantz, co-directors)

American Winter Poster Art V6 2 22 13 sml

The second HBO documentary on this list, “American Winter” followed eight families from Portland, Ore. who had contacted the 211 helpline. The film was one of the first to emphasize the income inequality that was leading to family homelessness around the country, and included commentary from economic experts.

Filmmaker Joe Gantz joined us for the screening at the Uptown Cinema in June 2013, which we hosted with a bevy of partners, and so did many members of the families featured in the film. You can see photos from the screening, including the post-film Q&A, here.

We took a step forward in our advocacy work by writing a discussion guide for the film, an approach we repeated several more times for other filmmakers.

Gantz also conducted a communications workshop for our partners, giving us advice on how he approached this delicate situation of families telling their stories during such a vulnerable time.

How to Watch: Amazon Prime


5. @Home (2013; directed by Suzanne Suffredin)

Mark Horvath, Haley Lewis, @home, drawing

If you’ve spent any time following social media about homelessness, you’ve no doubt encountered the pioneer in this field, Mark Horvath (@hardlynormal) of Invisible People. Director Suzanne Suffredin followed Mark on a cross-country journey as he combined homelessness outreach with his frank observations about homelessness in America.


Mark joined us in person for a screening of the film as part of the Hack to End Homelessness in May 2014.

Our student project assistant Haley Jo Lewis created the illustration of Mark in his tweet above, and wrote about the film’s impact in this post.

How to Watch: YouTube


6, 7, 8, 9. American Refugees (2014: various directors; produced by Lindy Boustedt)

We can’t make a list of top films without including the home-grown films from our “sister project” here at SU, the Film & Family Homelessness Project. The four animated shorts from that project featured four different teams of filmmakers each working in unique styles of animation, highlighting the real-life stories of thousands of Washington families experiencing poverty or homelessness. The films, which premiered at SIFF in May 2014, have been viewed all over the world, from local groups in church basements and at conferences, to people checking out cutting-edge animation by watching on their phones.

The Smiths, By Neely Goniodsky: Hand-drawn animation, digital cutouts, and paintings are used to tell this heartwarming story about how a family falls into homelessness, and then is able to move out of it with the help of a compassionate, supportive community.

Home for Sale, By Laura Jean Cronin: Imagine seeing glimpses of the family who once lived in the foreclosed home you’re touring and considering to buy. This powerful piece comes from its radio play nature and rich oil paintings that were physically layered to create the 30-plus animated images seen in the film.

The Beast Inside, By Amy Enser and Drew Christie: Told through the power of spoken word rap and illustrated with hand-drawn animations and a muted warm color palette, a teen in a homeless family describes his challenges and celebrates the triumph of his creative self.

Super Dads, By Sihanouk Mariona: Using a kaleidoscope of real stories to create an overarching storyline, fathers and children share their worries, feelings, challenges and how they overcame being homeless using stop motion animated clay characters.

Meet the filmmakers, and download the Discussion Guide for the films, here.


10. The “Streetwise: Revisited” Project (Director: Martin Bell)

Erin (who goes by her street name “Tiny”) on Pike Street, Seattle, 1983

The ground-breaking, Oscar-nominated 1984 documentary “Streetwise” introduced the world to Seattle teenagers living on the streets, including Erin “Tiny” Blackwell. Filmmakers Mary Ellen Mark and Martin Bell stayed in close contact with Erin over the years and produced several follow-up films, including “Tiny – The Life of Erin Blackwell” in 2016. We partnered with The Seattle Public Library and Firesteel on a six-week-long community program, “Streetwise: Revisited,” featuring screenings of both films, an exhibit of treasured photos by Mark (who died in 2015), lectures, and a full-day event of art, entertainment and advocacy. 

How to Watch: “Streetwise” is on YouTube. Find screenings of “Tiny” on the film’s website.


11. THE FLORIDA PROJECT (2017; directed by Sean Baker)

Florida Project invite

This narrative gem was the perfect bookend for our film-screening experiences. Whereas our first show was a documentary about children living near Disneyland, “THE FLORIDA PROJECT” fictionalized the stories of children living near Disney World (nicknamed “The Florida Project” when it was under development). An Oscar-nominated performance by Willem Dafoe and Critics’ Choice award for Brooklynn Prince — who played six-year-old Moonee brought the story of down-on-their-luck families to life, against a backdrop of fantastical children’s play and vivid cinematography.

Florida Project rainbow running gif

Director Sean Baker came to Seattle for the screening we co-hosted with Housing Development Consortium and Washington Low Income Housing Alliance. Later, as part of our advocacy work, we helped coordinate a discussion with Sean at the national conference of the National Alliance to End Homelessness in Los Angeles, four days before the Oscars.

Watch it more than once and see if your feelings change about Moonee’s young mom, Hayley; better yet, watch it with the help of the Action Guide and Discussion Guide that we developed for A24 Films along with HDC and many others. Find out more about the project, including our student assistant Katie’s review, and how to use the film for advocacy.

How to Watch: Prime Video, others



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